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Review: Mysterious Girlfriend X (Manga)

Parting is such sweet ... drool?

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If you stomached any or all of its Spring 2012 anime adaptation, you should already be familiar with Mysterious Girlfriend X (Nazo no Kanojo X)—the boy-meets-girl seinen serial in which a boy named Tsubaki tastes the left-behind drool of his female classmate, Urabe, and consequently becomes mentally and physically dependent upon it. Lovesick is perhaps an all too apropos compound word for Tsubaki’s condition. He cannot go more than a couple days without a dose of Urabe’s “medicine” lest debilitating symptoms akin to those of the flu start to manifest. This is all ok, by the way, with Urabe, who was told by the voices in her head that Tsubaki would be her first sexual partner. So they become a secret couple and, every day after school before parting ways to walk to their own houses, share a ritual: Urabe coats her index finger in saliva for Tsubaki to suck like some nurse-proffered thermometer. This has to substitute for a kiss (the more socially acceptable method of saliva transference) for now, because Urabe’s not yet comfortable with that level of physical intimacy. Will she ever be? Can Tsubaki be trusted? Is he mature enough to handle physical intimacy and the emotions that come with it? These are the questions the manga, unlike the anime, could definitively answer.

Unlike its anime adaptation, which knew how to stop, the Mysterious Girlfriend X manga keeps offering chapter after frustrating chapter of its trademark will-they-won’t-they. The anime covers roughly 36 chapters of the manga while leaving out and rearranging some chapters to tell a succinct, 13-episode story with an only slightly frustrating, but at least positively pointed, open-ended finale. The manga, on the other hand, has 11 volumes comprising 92 chapters that evolve the characters bit by bit but never the plot. This extension of repetition, instead of being leveraged to utilize author/illustrator Riichi Ueshiba’s imaginative device, dreamscapes, and intimate moments of moral consequence, usually and unfortunately ends up highlighting the borderline fetishistic side of this title.

That's not to say there aren't chapters purely comprised of innocent fun or tender/touching chapters (hell, a few chapters made my eyes brim with tears), but the curiosities of an adolescent male are truthfully only so diverse when it comes to adolescent females. Therefor chapters dedicated to Tsubaki’s fixation on how Urabe would look in certain costumes — a bathing suit, bunny ears, a Guy Fawkes mask — play a large role in filling volumes. Thankfully, the costumes are more a means to expose Tsubaki’s shallowness and how it (however unintentionally) negatively affects the relationship between Urabe and himself. In short, moments of anger, jealousy, and objectification, as reflected by Urabe’s sincere hurt conveyed via the seemingly magical emotional transferrence of drool, cause the couple to learn more about themselves and each other and behave differently thereafter. That is to say they grow … together; nothing is ever portrayed as one-sided in this manga. Rather, that's as it would be in a perfect world. The repetition of such chapters, while at best a possible statement on the single-mindedness of the adolescent male psyche, reveals a frustrating lack of growth in storytelling and gets just about as tiresome as waiting for Tsubaki and Urabe to actually share a real kiss.

The repetition reveals a frustrating lack of growth in storytelling and gets just about as tiresome as waiting for Tsubaki and Urabe to actually share a real kiss.

So it comes down to the very last chapter: Chapter 92. Tsubaki and Urabe have been together for what feels like forever and shared some real moments (good, bad, and downright ugly). They’ve sabotaged themselves. They’ve been sabotaged by others. They’ve held out so long against destiny, isn’t about time they just gave in? Someone once said of series built upon romantic tension that the first kiss ends all interest in subsequent content. Would a kiss between Tsubaki and Urabe have stopped readers from keeping up with Mysterious Girlfriend X? It’s a possibility. So maybe it’s a good thing it’s been 91 chapters without any solid climax. Maybe there was a reason for that. A lesson to be learned? After all, the story has a lot more going on that makes it a worthwhile read than the definitive answer to its own epitomic will-they-won’t-they.

It’s legitimately refreshing to see a story nostalgic about falling in love and those early assumptions and subsequently bumbled steps so often made early on in relationships. Rather, it’s wonderful to see two characters so intent on loving each other that they work through all the mishaps to be content with one another. I could watch/read that sort of compassion and caring endlessly (without the repetitive pandering to fetishes). Since this is a review about a manga that has run its course, however, and readers are most likely wondering what happened in the end to see if reading all those chapters is a worthwhile feat, let me … take at least a paragraph to contrast some other aspects of the anime and manga along their respective runs.

The anime completely outclasses the manga in terms of visuals.

For its 13 episodes, the anime completely outclasses the manga in terms of visuals. Backgrounds and dreamscapes are not only used more often but with greater impact on the story regarding foreshadowing and mood/tone. I still remember more of the anime’s presence than that of the manga despite the latter's length and unfortunate repetition. The manga had not finished when the anime was airing, so a true-to-the-book ending was not in the cards. How the anime ended its run, by swapping content and choosing specific chapters to relay the building relationship between Tsubaki and Urabe as well as foreshadowing its conclusion, became evident as mastery upon reading the manga. The composition of the manga’s chapters seems (by comparison) corrupted by a bad sense of both pacing and character evolution; chapters seem spurred on by random ideas instead of an architected flow. (Character design, however, is pretty consistent between the two mediums.) Thankfully, some of what the anime omitted for time’s sake, and much of what’s in the volumes that followed the anime’s air dates, is worthwhile reading material.

As it would be a shame to ruin the ridiculous amount of frustration built by the manga at this point, I’ll not spoil the end for you, dear reader. I’ll merely recommend its perusal to those not so off-put by its premise and explain how I think the manga should've ended:

Second to last panel: Silhouettes of Tsubaki and Urabe, who have been established as completely intent on kissing and allowed by all circumstance to do so, lean in with only a barely distinguishable sliver of white page separating their lips.

Last panel: A close up on the faces of Tsubaki and Urabe as they both turn, fully lit, towards the camera and say in unison, "Thanks for reading!"

I would accept this for two reasons. Firstly, because it would make so many people scream, but mostly because the kiss isn't the reason behind Mysterious Girlfriend X … waiting for it is. If Tsubaki and Urabe were to "move forward" by kissing, that would only advance their physical interaction and not necessarily (depending on pressures involved) signify any growth. Mysterious Girlfriend X is, instead, all about the waiting, the meantime: how the characters get to the kiss — how important and special it is to be fortunate enough to partake of that type of intimacy, which can only be built between people who have invested much time in getting to know each other via many tribulations. The story is simply Tsubaki and Urabe getting close to and learning about each other. And underlying the odd, the gross, and the unexplained in this series is some serious character development via every incident made possible at the reader's frustrated expense. The kiss is superfluous — bait masterfully poised to lure readers through page after page of falling in love.

The Trap Door: Shinji Ikari, why hast thou forsaken us!!!?

Zeoraima: Project Hades (1986)

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Zeorymer Splash pageGood God, why do I do this to myself? Some anime I watch leaves me wishing I'd never bothered. It’s not that it’s bad, it’s just that not much actually happens. When it’s a drama or a thriller, you tend not to notice. But when it’s a mecha show, the fact that the show can have a giant robot hitting something and still be boring seems hard to believe. But that’s what AIC achieved with a flawed adaption of what was already a weird manga. Meet Hades Project: Zeorymer or Zeoraima: Project Hades in the West. Manga Ent. is lying to you when they say it’s like Evangelion. You, Zeorymer, are no Evangelion, and you, Masato Akitsu, are no Shinji Ikari.

You, Zeorymer, are no Evangelion, and you, Masato Akitsu, are no Shinji Ikari.

In future Japan, the national budget allows for hi-tech underground bases the size of aircraft carriers near Mount Fuji, kids can be locked up in jail Gitmo-style, and habeas corpus is gone, baby, gone. Masato Akitsu has just been arrested by the Japanese government. Not the police. Not the army. The Japanese government. But don’t worry, there’s a cute girl called Miku on hand to smile and say something before Masato passes out. Anyway, there’s this organization that wants to bring the underworld to life. They’re called the Hau Dragon, and they’ve made an evil version of Microsoft (called ICC here) as a shell corporation so they can control everyone’s computer and then rule the world. Then why I wonder, do they blow up the ICC headquarters in the first five minutes? Oh well. Long story short, the only way for the Hau Dragon to rule the universe from beyond the grave is to have the strongest warriors pilot massive mecha robots and enslave the world … maybe? In order for them to do this, they need a man called Masaki Kihara, who designed the robots, and the pilots. But he destroys the robots and flees with an embryo to the Japanese government, giving them the Zeorymer. After 15 years, the Hau Dragon are ready to move, but so is the government.

Zeorymer Splash Image 1

If I made the last few sentences seem exciting, don’t get your hopes up. This show is not. Soon after being arrested, Masato is given a chance to escape only to find his way into the secret base … which they could have driven him to anyway. Apparently, his minder, Mr. Oki, wanted to see if he had the Right Stuff or something. Because being able to escape from a bunch of guards in a van who know you’re going to try to escape is truly a benchmark to piloting a mecha. Oh, who am I kidding? The only benchmark to pilot a Gundam is to have a penis and to have had your family murdered in front of you. So Masato has his family taken away from him (or bought off) and has to pilot this robot. Turns out he also needs Miku to co-pilot with him, and she has to be naked while merged with Zeorymer to fight as one cohesive—oh my God, are you fecking kidding me!?! It’s bad enough that Masato has a winge and then climbs into the machine, but after showing how kick ass she is, Miku is reduced to being naked while tortured, and subsequently meek and mild when around abusive men. It’s like they make her out to be this amazing girl who can handle herself but who then gets scared and decides she needs to be loved up by Masato while he turns psychotic.

You see, soon after he climbs into the cockpit, the ghost (downloaded or otherwise) of Masaki starts controlling him and he begins to kill his own creations, the cloned warriors or Hakkeshu, as they challenge him in combat with their own robotic fighting units. At some point, Masaki takes complete control over Masato’s body, and Oki and Miku realise that he’s stalling for time—hoping the Hau Dragon will wipe out the world's population so that he can rule the world. We know this because Masaki starts acting liking emo Peter Parker from Spiderman III. OK, maybe not dancing or anything, but, Jesus, if you could clone a smirk, he’d be it. He threatens Oki, who suddenly turns into a mere paper pusher and not the no-nonsense military genius he’s been for the past twenty minutes. Also, Masaki keeps trying to rape Miku as soon as they’re alone together. Here’s another revelation: Miku is a robot herself, designed by Masaki to control the Zeorymer (as Masaki can’t control it all himself). So after he made her into a young girl robot, she was aged (can a robot age?) by the government into a nubile teenaged robot for some reason that’s never explained. Thank goodness she’s been aged up, because Masaki mauling her breasts and trying to kiss her would be SUPER AWKWARD if she was still a child.

Zeorymer Splash Image 2

At this point, I didn't even notice the amount of pilots on the bad guys' side dying because, if I’m being honest, I wanted all of them to die. The world goes to hell once Yuratei, the leader of the Hau Dragon, approves a scorched earth policy among her health care reforms and some badly needed educational programs. At the same time, Oki goes on bended knees and asks Masaki to fight the forces of evil. He says no but then has a massive headache. (God, can’t someone get this guy an aspirin?) Suddenly, Masaki’s back being Masato again and climbs into Zeorymer one last time, but not before having a tender moment with Miku as they ascend to confront Yuratei in her flying super fortress that she nicked from the Zetradi. There, Zeorymer destroys all the defenses of the fortress, and Yuratei stands waiting for the end. There’s a blinding white flash, a quick pan out from a fireball somewhere on Earth, and then…

Nothing. Cut to credits.

Who put their name to this rubbish or signed off on it?

Ya know, if I hadn’t seen things like Mad Bull 34, The Humanoid and Garaga, I would be really, rreeallllly pissed right about now. But as it is, it’s a relief to be finished with this exercise. Almost merciful, I must say. For whatever reason, they didn’t bother to film an aftermath in a decade when OVAs fell over themselves to have aftermaths in their works. If it’s possible, this heap of rubbish has an equally bad manga version, which has far more nudity (!?!) and violence in it but a completely different storyline. It involves a Dimensional Joint or some such horsepoop but has a Masaki, Miku, and Zeorymer, which is all that's needed for an award-winning OVA series … right? As well as that, we get some well-earned sex scenes involving Yuratei and her favourite warrior, Taiha, who cannot speak of their love openly because she’s in charge, blah, blah, blah. Also, before you think me crass in stating that people gyrating over each other’s bodies is a point of excitement, let me share two facts with you. One, this is directed by Toshihiro Hirano, who’s done some ribald anime over the years (some of which we’ve covered before). In other words, he knows what he’s doing as a director … most of the time. Second, in a show with robots, sexy girls, planetary destruction, and more, the sex (and pillow talk) is the feckin’ high point of the show. Other shows can be a little stale in their setup but this is just plain boring and stupid. Who put their name to this rubbish or signed off on it? I mean who would…

Guyver info

Are you kidding me?!! The same bloke who wrote Guyver came up with this muck? Guyver isn’t Ibsen but, merciful hour, it isn’t this bad. There’s more dialogue in the original Guyver animation’s opening episode than in the entirety of this psycho-sexual robotic travelogue.  

Zeorymer Splash Image 3
There’s more dialogue in the original Guyver animation’s opening episode than in the entirety of this psycho-sexual robotic travelogue.

The lead character spends the first five minutes screaming to be let out from prison, gets out, pilots a robot, gets taken over, swigs booze, molests an android girl, realises he shouldn’t help the Emperor hunt down the Jedi, makes up with his artificial girl, and saves the world by blowing himself up. The animation is quick and to the point but the whole thing takes place at night except for the last five minutes. (Hmm, there might be more to that.) None of the cast deserve life, except for maybe Oki and Miku, and she throws hers away at the end. The people below the action get wiped out, but I don’t care. Stuff gets blown up, but it’s more like trying to keep a drunk man’s attention half the time. This thing should be shown in the anime room of a con if only to provide cheap laughs to the doomed souls who happen to wander in. The dub is atrocious and should be considered a minor improvement on the whole. I really can’t believe I’m actually writing this review stating these things. It’s like I’m not here but observing. I first saw Zeorymer over ten years ago, back when Manga UK was still trying to push its bad catalog choices on us and before they saw sense and went with more modern choices. Not to say Naruto is much of an improvement, but, hey, at least it’s a living. The packaging even tries to make some slender link between this and Evangelion. Don’t. Stop. Don’t even go there. Nothing happens in this show that's even remotely like Eva. Liar, liar, pants on fire.

Zeorymer Splash Image 4

Don’t watch this. Please. I know I review this stuff so you don’t have to, and yes, I know I sometimes review stuff with a wink, wink, nudge, nudge attitude to some bad titles, but this one is terrible. No reward is worth watching this tripe. If you see in it in a bargin bin, pick the porn DVD or the instructional video about fixing T-joint water pipes instead. Even if you’re not into either subject, you’ll be better served and entertained. This is being held forever more in the Trap Door, staked down for the crows.

Next month, I try to counteract the bad by watching something equally bad. Lupin stuff should be here in time for the winter break. I know I said it would be summer but circumstances changed. Take it easy, my audience.

On the 25th of every month in "The Trap Door," Phillip O'Connor tackles one forgotten anime title to find out whether it deserves to be rediscovered by the anime community. Click here to check out previous entries in the column.

Review: Depression Quest

The game that inspired the hit Internet harassment campaign

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It’s useless trying to write a review of Depression Quest in a vacuum. Like it or not, Depression Quest can never go back to being a simple video game (or Not a Video Game, depending on your perspective). Now and forever, it will be known as the game that sparked one of the largest, most visible video game controversies in the history of aggrieved Internet nerds. That's a shame.

I first heard of Depression Quest, an interactive digital narrative that attempts to approximate the experience of living with depression, when angry video gamers started harassing developer Zoe Quinn on Twitter for allegedly sleeping with Kotaku blogger Nathan Grayson in order to garner positive reviews for the game. Not the best introduction to a game, but it was free on Steam so I downloaded it and gave it a try.

One of the attacks lobbed at Depression Quest has been that it’s Not A Game, and that some sort of "corruption" had to be involved for it to gather support on Steam’s Greenlight service, in which players vote for games to get them distributed on Steam. Now I’m not going to deny that it's a borderline case for the definition of video games, but seeing as there’s no hard and fast definition anyway, this really isn’t a big deal. As far as I’m concerned, visual novels are considered video games, so why not Depression Quest — effectively a digital choose-your-own-adventure? (Anybody crowing about choose-your-own-adventure novels, know that I’m also fairly comfortable labeling them “games" — though not "video games" due to the lack of video.)

The game begins with a wall of second-person prose describing your character, who has no specific gender (allowing you to imagine them as yourself) and lives a fairly unremarkable life: working at a job they hate but taking solace in their supportive girlfriend. As you move the game forward by selecting dialogue choices and courses of action (“go to the party” or “stay home”), the symptoms of clinical depression begin to manifest. Your character loses their motivation to do things they once enjoyed and begins to form an internal monologue of negativity and self-doubt.

What makes Depression Quest remarkable, though, is a simple twist in the mechanics. Like a typical choose-your-own-adventure, you get to choose how your character proceeds at each fork in the road, but a person with depression isn’t fully in control of their decisions. Sometimes the depression takes over and forces your hand. To convey this, the game crosses out choices and colors them red so you can’t select them. As more and more of the positive actions that might draw you out of your depression get crossed out, the game becomes increasingly frustrating. If only you could calmly explain things to your girlfriend, you might be able to sort things out, but the only actionable options involve desperately clinging to her while telling her about how bad a person you are. Meanwhile, background music and visual aids subtly shift to become more atonal and less colorful as the depression deepens. Depression Quest isn’t fun, but then again it’s not supposed to be.

I’ve never experienced true depression, but I went though a brief phase where I felt some of the symptoms. Luckily I was never remotely suicidal, but one thing from those few months that sticks in my mind is that smiling was physically difficult. I would put up a good face for family and friends but then drop back into exhausted ruminations the moment they were gone. Depression Quest manages to hit on one of the most fundamental feelings that drives depression: the feeling of being trapped inside your own head without any perceivable options outside of the most negative, self-destructive ones. It’s not possible to “win” in Depression Quest, and the game’s ending is appropriately inconclusive. Depression never truly ends; no matter how well you stave it off, it can always find a way back in.

Rarely have I seen a game so effectively use failure as a device for both gameplay and narrative.

You can easily finish Depression Quest in one to two hours, depending on your reading speed and how much you like to stop and think over your choices in role-playing games. It’s not a particularly rich experience, but as an experiment in “un-fun” games, it’s actually quite good. Rarely have I seen a game so effectively use failure as a device for both gameplay and narrative — usually it is only presented as a contrast to success, the dominant paradigm of video games. What’s most disappointing is that Depression Quest doesn’t go further. Imagine a game with more degrees of freedom (like, say, a point-and-click adventure) and similar mechanics that restrict your actions based on your character’s mood. The frustrating effect of depression might be made even more powerful if your character has more agency that is being arbitrarily taken away.

Unfortunately, it’s tough to extricate Depression Quest from the so-called “GamerGate” controversy, so lots of people will discount it as “that game that Zoe Quinn made.” The details of the harassment of a number of game designers and journalists is a topic for a different post, and if you’re curious, please read the many posts that sum it up better than I can in this review. The evidence against Quinn has been thin at best — Grayson never covered Depression Quest once they started their relationship — but regardless of any of that, her game is a great example of the potential for activist game design: games that can make us think about real issues and sometimes even help real people affected by them by putting us in the shoes of others. I don’t need to have slept with the developer to recognize smart game design when I see it.

Depression Quest is available now on Steam and the game's official website, where the developers are supporting their work with a "pay what you want" model.

Otakon 2014: The Panels

Movie premieres, devil cartoons, and sweet, sweet alcohol

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This has been a long time comin', perhaps a little too long, and we apologize. Luckily, panel reports are tasty no matter when you dig into them!

This panel report might be a little shorter than the usual. Given the number of guests and the corresponding number of Q&As and interviews for which all Ani-Gamers hands were on deck, the time we as individuals got to devote to going to other panels was all too brief. Not to mention that there was quite a bit of unwitting overlapping. Be that as it may, read on to discover some panels you might want to see at some future con, possibly next otakon, get some ideas for a panel you might wanna do, or whatever else. Hey, we just write the words. What you do with 'em is up to you.

Intro To Josei

It’s great to see some light being shed on josei titles, media targeting later teenage to adult female readers or featuring likewise-aged protagonists, but it’s a shame that it had to be Friday’s sunrise which did so. Even though it started the con off as one of the first (of seven) panels offered at 10 am (so it wasn’t arguably that early), the room was decently full; a few empty chairs allowed latecomers like myself and Evan to find seats. While we were only ten to fifteen minutes late, it was clear via slideshow hiccup that we had already missed a barrage of content. The format was simple enough: breaking down josei titles into sub-genres—Slice of Life, Theatrical/Dramatic, Historical, Supernatural, Fantasy, Weird—with two recommendations cited in detail for each and some other glossed-over honorable mentions. Presenters McKenzie and Jean made an effort to avoid recommending familiar titles, but still veered into the mainstream (Kids on the Slope, Karneval) on occasion. The limited smattering of applause and woots from the audience showed that most chosen titles were, indeed, new to the audience. So great job there! Also, the back-and-forth and jovial attitude of the presentation made for a fun and fluid atmosphere. The only real problems I had were the inconsistent mentioning of the manga-ka and the magazines that published their works as well as some clips that ran too long. [Ink]

Light Novel Translation

“Translators are at the mercy of the text,” was the quote on the screen when I walked into a panel about translating light novels. Presented by Paul Starr, translator for such notable light novel series as Haruhi Suzumiya and Spice & Wolf, started off by running through some slides with the various tools he uses for his work. For each example, he explored the benefits and drawbacks as well as alternate takes afforded by each tool and then defined his own process: looking up japanese words in a japanese dictionary first and then consulting the Internet for current usage and applicable contemporary usage variations. At one point, Starr confessed, half in jest and half in earnest, that the use of Yahoo! Answers by Japanese students and teachers has been infinitely helpful. Starr also ran the audience through the frustration of what he deemed the second step in his process: “Deciding how to say it in English.” Here he spoke to challenges, including concepts, context, phrasing, references, and linguistic limitations, faced during his work on the aforementioned titles as well as the lengths to which he went in making them seem fluid and poignant to an English-reading audience. While difficult, the challenges shown by Starr illustrated the opportunity for creativity to overcome such hurdles. As he put it, “Even though you know exactly what’s being said, there’s not necessarily an obvious way to say it in English.“ Starr also noted how such creativity can cause problems even amongst “reasonable, well-informed people.” The exploration of these and other related issues, especially given the titles in focus, was a treat for word/language nerds and hopefully a catalyst for respect due to all in this role. [Ink]

Mai Mai Miracle Screening with Sunao Katabuchi

If you’ve never heard of or seen Mai Mai Miracle, a movie that adapts a novelization of Nobuko Takagi’s autobiography, watch the following and then read on:

This is directed by the same man responsible for directing Black Lagoon. And for all the adrenaline that adaptation brings to life (motion), so Mai Mai Miracle delivers an outpouring of sympathetic sentiment regarding the imagination of children, making friends, growing up, and saying goodbye. It’s not a sad movie by any means, although there is some somberness woven into the sense of nostalgic longing, but there was not a dry eye after the screening. In fact, Sunao Katabuchi (the director) took questions immediately after explaining how the movie came to be, and every single person who took the mic from his hand and asked their question did so through a voice positively choked up with emotion. The animation (Madhouse) is beautiful and imaginative, the score is a sublime complement, and the script for the children is incredibly true to childhood. As much as Katabuchi made it clear in his remarks about the movie that he was attempting to preserve a specific moment in time for Takagi and the people of Yamaguchi Prefecture (where the movie takes place), the movie itself makes evident how universal childhood is and how much it still tugs at the heartstrings no matter how far the years advance us. Sadly, there were far too many empty seats in the largest video room at Otakon for this North American premiere. [Ink]

Kurosawa: Romancing the Samurai

Plisken and Panda of The Manly Battleships introduced filmmaker Akira Kurosawa as part of a family with samurai ties and a man who was influenced by Western cinema. The panel ran the audience though Kurosawa’s accomplishments in film and his positions while climbing the industry ladder. While intertwining information about Kurosawa’s personal life (marriage and offspring) the presenters pointed out prominent outcomes and techniques as related to the director’s various working relationships. There was a comprehensive rundown of the director’s prominent works as well as his early involvements, most of which punctuated by a short clip. In the end, the panel was more a biography than true to the theme which the title implied. This is a shame given how knowledgeable the presenters seemed regarding Kurosawa’s experiences and the overarching effects they had on his career. A little application would have gone a long way in making this one heck of a panel. [Ink]

Japanese Drinking Culture: Proper Etiquette and Presentation

At Otakon 2013, master sake sommelier Tiffany Dawn Soto gave one heck of a general primer panel that focused on various libations available in Japan. So when I saw she was giving a panel on drinking culture at Otakon 2014, I cleared everything else from my schedule. I was not disappointed. To comply with an all-ages panel designation, Soto first imparted some knowledge about tea. This included the four basic principles—harmony, respect, purity, tranquility—as well as some notes on ceremony: dress, tools, and behavior. With that out of the way (but not irrelevant), the fun began. While “Not getting drunk is unmannerly” was the hook of the 21+ part of the presentation as well as its general tone, the presentation was more about how to be a good drunk when hosting and being hosted. Tips and pointers, learned the hard way via personal experience, were served up by Soto with a side of some self-deprecating humor concerning guest drinking order, pouring procedures, ordering and appreciating cocktails, karaoke rules, and “the art of getting home.” The latter, which builds on the aspect of respecting one’s host by not being a jerk, was the most revelatory to me. Through this, people in Japan generally pay no mind to those passed out drunk on sidewalks and other public spaces, because in their eyes, those sleeping it off are not putting anyone in harms way (as opposed to driving home). Thus they “engage in the social contract” by respecting others’ safety. Another fantastic panel! [Ink]

Satanicartoons: The Devil in Anime

With all the ambiguity surrounding “Lucifer,” “the devil” and “Satan,” not to mention the frequent substituting of one name with the other in stories, most of the West has trouble distinguishing the three. Now take that confusion and apply a fuzzier Eastern filter to it, and you get Mike Toole’s Santanicartoons panel. But Toole’s done his homework, and leveraging that, as well as exploring the devil’s most basic role as adversary, Toole runs through anime, cartoon, and video games examples wherein “the devil” appears, examines what role he/it fills — superhero, monster, ideal of evil — and looks at how and to what degree those roles are leveraged. As a sort of running gauge, the multitudinous examples were strung lightly together by a judgement on whether the character was only a namesake representation or whether there was actually some embodiment of specific traits. As usual with any Toole panel, the dry delivery of humor and choice clips from his examples (from way back to recently streaming) made for an engaging and fun time. [Ink]

A Japanese Fairy Tale: The Dragon and the Shisa

Members of the Chin Hamaya Cultural Center enacted a Japanese folk tale, which takes place in Okinawa, wherein the wrath of a dragon terrorizes the citizens and a shisa comes to protect them. One person orated the tale, while others played the parts of villagers, the dragon, and the shisa. The dragon, sadly, was stolen and could not be replaced before Otakon, so the outfit made do with a smaller stuffed dragon. To the troupe’s credit, that worked just fine. The shisa was more impressive, however, as a two-man puppet (think chinese dragon costume) that combines the likenesses and traits of a lion and a dog. The mood was light, aided by some intermittent commentary by the narrator, and the tale was over way too quickly (~16 min) for all the joy it brought.

Afterwards, the troupe explained the origin of the fairy tale and its variants, showed a slideshow of Okinawa with all its shisa statues, and then went to some Q&A. After one audience member asked after the workings of the shisa costume, there were lengthy explanations of tumbling and the various acrobatics required. After that, there were demonstrations of dance with custom-made, hand-held shisas as well as another, riotous dance backed by live taiko. This was a fantastic experience. The room was full, and I hope it comes around again so more people can go see it. [Ink]

Kill la Kill: Spot the References Beginner's Edition

Broadly speaking, there are two fields of thought when it comes to analyzing the influences and meaning of a creative work. Some critics prefer to consider the authorship of the work as basically irrelevant, instead focusing on the themes and allusions that will (consciously or otherwise) connect the reader with the text. For anyone who’s seen a Charles Dunbar (Study of Anime) panel, this is the sort of analysis he’s engaged in, connecting modern anime series with ancient mythology in unique ways. Then there’s Daryl Surat (Anime World Order), who is sometimes comically strict with his critique: the connection can only be made if there is sufficient evidence that the author(s) saw the alluded work and that it directly influenced the finished product. In keeping with that philosophy, Daryl’s superb Kill la Kill panel made a case for over a dozen references in the series by showing the originals then following them up with the Kill la Kill version, all while keeping in mind that references only count if they are a) recognizable as such and b) things that the creators would have been consciously aware of. The referenced titles included Gutsy Frog (about sentient clothing, and a favorite of Studio Trigger), Sukeban Deka (delinquent female transfer student, with an ending credits sequence from the drama series that directly mirrors KLK’s), and a double-whammy of Armored Trooper VOTOMS and Aim for the Ace! (referenced side-by-side in episode 2 of Kill la Kill). [Evan]

Ninjas, Spider Monsters and Cyber Criminals: The Great Worlds of Yoshiaki Kawajiri

I will not remember this panel for its well-thought out and researched content. I will not remember this panel for all the examples of Kawajiri that define Kawajiri. I will forever remember this panel for presenter Vincenzo Averello testing the strength of the audience’s sensitivity to offensive content by rolling a clip of Detroit Metal City and gauging their reactions through squinted, judgemental eyes. After a quick (one minute?) introduction to the director’s accomplishments, the panelist launched into an exhaustive list (literally, there was no work left unexamined) of titles in which Kawajiri was involved. Along the way, Vinnie noted what role Kawajiri played in each production and pointed out his influence in short clips via poignant narration. And while I say which roles, I don’t mean to make his involvement sound limited. For as Vinnie pointed out, “Kawajiri always played 100 roles in the production process in each of these films.” Throughout all the projects, while noting Kawajiri’s most distinctive contribution to each, Vinnie also kept pointing out previously mentioned characteristics, which tied all the titles and the attention to Kawajiri’s influence together quite nicely. After exhausting Kawajiri titles, the presenter went on to select works of those Kawajiri worked with as well as his present status and rumors of future works. [Ink]


The Visual Novel: Psychology of the Unrecognized Narrative Art

Building a panel around a good, though poorly supported or totally unsupported, idea is much like flushing out a poem with languid prose to justify a single line of actual consequence. Starting off with a lengthy panelist introduction might be useful if you majored in psychology and were making use of your degree, but that simply was not the case here; the psychological perspective promised in the panel description arrived almost as a footnote*. The presenter, representing the Academy of Narrative Art, looked instead at the history and evolution of methods of storytelling through aspects unique to specific mediums—novels, film, TV, comics, etc.—and then compared them with vitriol to the ALMIGHTY VISUAL NOVEL (VN). Every other medium is dead, according to the panelist. (Though to give him the benefit of the doubt, he probably just meant plateaued with regards to form and function). After noting how VNs borrow and combine specific aspects of other mediums to form the UBER MEDIUM, the presenter expounded upon the evolution of the VN. This was the breadth of the panel, which was unfortunately more history lesson than psychological analysis. Thus the panel devolved more into “The History of VN Marketing” or “Compounding Examples of How Readers are Getting Lazier.” In truth, psychology enters into both, but the presenter didn’t use the plethora of tools associated with the cited field of study to observe as much. The best points were instead very subtle, such as the mental trickery inherent in the medium: the text to sex scene bait-and-switch format or the indeterminable page count hidden by digital form factor and the (relatively) fixed-pace, click-as-you-go, choose-your-own-adventure structure—both of which make those adverse to reading do so despite their perusing preference. I wish a more solid case had been built around the most solid line to come out of the panel (*“VNs are the amplification of simplification, simplified to foster projection onto the protagonist.”), but that is not what happened. Due to its structure, this panel unfortunately was little more than a painfully transparent attempt at justifying a love of the medium via pseudo-academic posturing. I think the research necessary to make this a great panel is already there, but it needs a sharper focus and a more well-constructed argument. [Ink]

The Classic Anime and Japanese Pro Wrestling Connection

Hard Sell: Con Panel. Sunday morning. “Classic anime.” Pro wrestling. Individually, any of these three factors is not the optimal audience draw, and together they seem like a presentation that wouldn’t bring in enough people with vested interest to fill the space of a janitor’s closet. And yet, in a pretty large panel room, Daryl Surat drew and sustained a sizable crowd worthy of the room’s dimensions. What kept everyone there was the magic. No, that’s doing the panel content some major injustice. Surat built a narrative, using history as a linear guide, that took ears, eyes, and minds through a journey of artistic, social, and national consequence: televised wrestling matches, the evolution of shonen formula, its influence on sports, and on and on and on. Precise examples, some inventive connections, a clear love for all he spoke to, and the underlying historical perspective pulled every bit of offered content together to make this panel not only informative but thoroughly and unexpectedly enjoyable. [Ink]

For more of our Otakon 2014 coverage, click here.

Snapshot: Portrait of Young Woman in Front of Mirror - or - Narcissism at Its Finest (Working!!)

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Although Wagnaria!! (Working!!) depends upon situational humor bolstered by writing that relies (in part) upon repetition of such shallowness as tropes and the interaction of caricatures for quick punchlines, the series is also aware of that fact and occasionally uses its self-actualized state to goad audience appreciation. Case in point: the first minute and seven seconds of the last episode in Season 1—more specifically the latter 37 seconds as compared to the first 30 seconds (which represent the animation of the series as a whole)—wherein a young man casually leaves his house and a young woman prepares for his arrival and their subsequent departure together.

After watching 12 episodes worth of standard animation, viewers think nothing of watching the succeeding 30 seconds of the next episode under the same conditions … until a camera hold and noticeably increased fluid motion buck complacency by reflecting just how manic and under-animated the series has been thus far by comparison. Defying the expected, the next 37 seconds not only stop pandering to the omniscient viewership norm (constant cuts focusing on whoever’s speaking) but also hone focus and seemingly slow time by increasing the level of detail given to Inami’s movements. The resulting fixed point of view and portrayal of smoother motion makes the scene stand out. But why here? Why now?

(Click on the above picture and watch until time stamp 01:07)

Well, this scene is the precursor to the season’s climax. Inami is about to go on what she perceives as her first date with Takanashi, the young man for whom she’s fallen and who is also her coworker and the one tasked with attempting to cure her downright dangerous androphobia (abnormal fear of men). While taught by her father to distrust men (with extreme prejudice), Inami has, for the first time in her life, become enamored of a male, and his importance to her is 3-fold: coworker, therapist, and love interest. So it’s easy to see why she’s stressed about the date. The preceding episode took care of all the cliché overexcited indecision regarding preparation and sleeplessness. What this particular moment in Episode 13 highlights, what this particular Snapshot focuses on, is the dedication to the ritual of mental preparation via physical assessment.

Who, whether male or female (regardless of which you identify with), hasn’t spent a few extra minutes in front of a mirror before a first date. The feeling of anxiety is nigh inescapable, and the only solace to be had before the doorbell ring is the confirmation via reflection that the image seen in the mirror is at least somewhat in line with one’s own self-image. The focus on self is acute. This is why Working!! effectively slows time by closely animating Inami’s subtle motions, which are, themselves, slowed down to a level uncharacteristic of any other animation within the series. This increased attention towards the constant movement of her entire physical self (as opposed to just an arm or a leg) as her body shifts to and fro in the mirror portrays Inami observing herself, judging herself, with a particular degree of self-awareness. She’s hyping herself up, and the close attention, the smoothness dedicated solely here to her swaying and primping, betrays that otherwise unspoken fact. These motions would mean nothing, after all, if only given the illusion of movement. The implementation of detail here adds time, in a sense, by taking the time to get everything just right.

Similarly, this is why the scene employs a fixed camera. To Inami, there is no-one else in the world right now. Only her image matters, because it must represent who she truly is as to ensure her date sees the same: her true self (no matter how untrue that sentiment actually is in real life). Even though her mother calls Inami out of her room for a brief moment, there isn’t any cut. Inami is, in her head, focused on primping; she’s still in front of that mirror, in front of the camera, no matter where she is. Thus when she steps away from the mirror, the camera stays there. Viewers stay in her mind, which is not on her mother’s advice but on the time she should be spending getting everything just perfect for the date. The level of concentration on her own absence from the mirror is illustrated in the thrice internally blown curtain, which is subject to the same detailed animation as Inami herself, in what was previously but a static background. The blowing curtain makes Inami’s absence all the more ostensible by implicating that vacuum of presence. When she returns, the curtain settles. What’s more, Inami closes that window before she leaves and takes the camera, her presence, with her as the scene ends with her exit. She’s now focused on what’s ahead, not what’s within.

Wagnaria!! is streaming on Cruchyroll and available via RightStuf and Amazon.

My thanks to Evan Minto for correcting me on the the specifics behind the effects I observed regarding the animation in this scene. What I originally thought was due to increased frame rate was actually just the depiction of slower movement and more intricate animation.